Finding My Voice & Protecting Girls from FGM/C

Most people who knew me as a child knew me as a very shy and timid little girl. Yet, today I am outspoken: I can argue with you on the subjects I feel strongly about! One of those subjects is gender equality. My passion is protecting girls and young women, in my own community and beyond, from female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C).

I work as a community facilitator with Amref Health Africa in Marsabit County, Kenya. The project is called Koota Injena, which means “come, let’s talk”. We work within four communities – the Borana, the Gabra, the Rendile, and the Samburu – to end FGM/C and early and forced marriage, and to redefine the value of girls.

My parents come from different communities. My mother comes from the Gabra community while my father is from the Borana. I have the most amazing parents who taught me the importance of embracing both these cultures and loving them deeply. Among the Borana and the Gabra, FGM/C is a deeply-rooted and culturally significant practice. The prevalence rate is around 98%, which tells you that almost every girl you meet will have suffered the cut.

“It’s only by talking openly that we will change things for good.”

The focus of Koota Injena, as the name suggests, is dialogue. In my community, like most African communities, it’s taboo for a young person to discuss cultural issues with clan elders. This is especially true for women and girls. Yet, I won’t give up. It’s only by talking openly with each other that we will change things for good.

No one can tell my story the way I can tell my story. That’s why I started speaking out. I decided, why not inspire people? Why not inspire young girls from villages deep in Marsabit County and make sure that they know the importance of education and that they know their rights.

Listening and Learning

All kinds of people cut their daughters, even political leaders, professors, and doctors. In Marsabit, we have women traveling from other countries (the UK, the Netherlands, the USA) to have their daughters cut, before returning home. Many of these people are highly educated. Yet they continue to believe that FGM/C is the right thing to do for their daughters.

That’s why I always say that it’s not just a question of education. It’s important to change mindsets and attitudes, too. I really believe that the work of changing culture can best be done by people from that culture. You have to meet people where they are. There is no one approach that works for all the different countries and communities where FGM/C is practised. We must listen and learn. And we need to make space for different perspectives and different voices.

Safe Spaces

In late 2019, I came to London for the first time and met local activists working to end FGM/C in the UK. I attended a workshop facilitated by Sarian Karim-Kamara, founder of the Keep the Drums, Lose the Knife collective, which brought together women from Sierra Leone, Kenya, and Guinea. Some were survivors of FGM/C, while some had been affected in other ways. They had friends or family members who had suffered the consequences of the cut or daughters they were trying to protect.

It was amazing to see these women, who didn’t know each other, speak so openly. They spoke not just about FGM/C, but about gender-based violence, relationships, family planning, reproductive health, and sex and pleasure. It was very emotional.

This is the same kind of safe space that we try to create in Marsabit. We have mother-daughter forums where women can talk about whatever affects them in their day-to-day lives. This is actually the most impactful part of the project: it’s the part people always ask for more of.

“You cannot force change.”

Meeting with these women reinforced to me the importance of understanding and respecting a culture before we try to change it. We all need to recognise that there are aspects of our cultures that are harmful to girls – but you cannot force change. 

Changing culture takes a lot of time. And people are not very receptive: first you’ll be insulted, you’ll be called names, and people won’t even come to your meetings. But as you keep talking with them, people will slowly come to you and they will want to speak out and tell their own stories.

If we are going to end FGM/C, we all need to take responsibility: start from your home and make sure you protect your daughters, nieces and sisters from this harmful act. We need more people to join us on the journey. Together, let’s end FGM/C!

Diram Duba is a survivor of FGM/C who works as a community facilitator with Amref Health Africa in Marsabit County, Kenya.

Do Women Benefit from Revolution?

This is the question I’ve been asking myself while reading Thomas Sankara’sWomen’s Liberation and the African Struggle’.

The book has made me think about the powerful images of Alaa Salah from Sudan. It’s also made me think about the women in South Africa – of all races and backgrounds – who marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria in 1956, and the female members of the Black Panther Party draped in leather and berets.

I thought of all the women around the world who have taken to the streets to demand their rights, and I thought about how women have always sacrificed their time and bodies in the name of a revolution – just as men have.

“You are our mothers and life companions, our comrades in struggle, and because of this fact you should by rights assert yourselves as equal partners in the joyful victory feasts of the revolution.” – Thomas Sankara, March 8 1987

Women have long been asserting ourselves as equal partners, but are we fully indulging in the feasts of revolution?

In my own country, South Africa, I would say that the answer is no. Women have been written out of history. When I learned the history of Apartheid in school, there was zero mention of any women. Not Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Not Albertina Sisulu. Not any of the other women who participated in the March of 1956. Not the women of the Black Consciousness Movement. I also remember learning about the Black Power Movement and hearing no mention of women like Angela Davis or Kathleen Cleaver.

Despite revolution, women still struggle for equality.

One current example is that the government in my country wants to expropriate land to the historic rightful owners. However, there is no clear plan as to how women should be included in this. We want ‘radical economic transformation’, but women are excluded from holding powerful positions. According to Africa Check, in South Africa women made up 72.5% of teachers and 37.3% of principals in public schools. The statistics in other fields are just as depressing.

Historically, the women’s rights movement has also been exclusive to middle-class white women.

This was shown by leaders of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the United States through the exclusion of black women. Why would you exclude a group of people who undergo even more oppression than you do?

Personally, I still think the #MeToo movement has mostly benefited white women in Hollywood and middle-class white women in the West. What has changed for girls and women in countries like mine because of #MeToo? To me, it seems like nothing at all.

In some countries it is still legal to mutilate a girl’s genitalia, despite widespread acknowledgement that female genital mutilation has absolutely no health benefits for girls and women. It is a way to ‘prepare’ girls for childbearing and marriage. With this in mind, where is this ‘sexual revolution’ the Western world speaks of?

These are sad truths, but I want to call on all my sisters worldwide to take a stance together.

Let us take a stance against oppression in all forms, so that society can reap the rewards of equality. Maya Angelou said, “Each time a woman stands up for herself, she stands up for all women.” Let us be those kinds of women.

All Teachers Need Mandatory Training on FGM

Written by Katrina Lambert (18) and Caitlin Moore (18) – Youth For Change UK members

Ever felt like decision makers aren’t listening to young people? That our voices are ignored and belittled in society? We certainly do sometimes. And we’ve decided to make some noise about it.

We are members of Youth for Change, a global network of youth activists who aim to tackle gender-based violence.

The best way to create positive change is through young people working together to make a difference. We are the ones affected – we should be the ones influencing policy.

Over the last few years we have been tackling the issue of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). FGM is a form of violence against girls. It can result in a lifetime of pain, psychological problems and difficulty in childbirth.

Around 125 million girls have been cut worldwide. An estimated 137,000 girls and women live with FGM in the UK.

In 2017, our research found that 90% of young people surveyed said that learning about FGM as part of Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) would help to protect and empower them and their peers. This was the focus of our campaign to get FGM in the RSE curriculum.

Therefore, we were incredibly excited when it was announced that Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) would be compulsory in every school in England as of 2020. Education plays an absolutely crucial role in young people’s lives (as two school students, we can verify this 100%).

Having FGM taught in schools is our chance to take a step forward in ending this harmful practice.

At Youth for Change, when the Department for Education released the online curriculum consultations, we engaged with our networks and communities to strengthen the voice advocating for FGM to be included.

We fed this back to the Department for Education when a group of us met with senior civil servants last year. We also met with Carolyn Harris MP, Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, to discuss the importance of empowering young people through educating them on FGM.

As a result, questions about FGM being a priority area of the new curriculum were raised in Parliamentary Questions, to the then Home Secretary, Amber Rudd MP.

In February 2019, it was celebrations all round. We heard that FGM was to be included as a topic in the curriculum. However, as tempting as it may be, we can’t stop now and pat ourselves on the back.

Yes, we have taken a monumental step in the direction towards eradicating FGM. However, in order to ensure that the new curriculum can appropriately educate and empower young people on the issue, teachers must feel equipped.

This is why Youth for Change is calling for mandatory training for all teachers on FGM.

Our research shows that 94% of young people feel school staff don’t know enough about FGM. If there is any chance of the the new curriculum guidance achieving its fullest positive impact, teachers must be trained.

When students are aware of the issue and feel confident that their teachers understand it, then they will naturally feel more protected and comfortable in opening up conversations. This is essential in increasing reporting and saving the lives of thousands of young women and girls across the UK.

Mandatory training for teachers will ensure that every pupil in the UK gets equal access to the FGM education they deserve, regardless of what part of the country they happen to be educated in.

The benefits of training teachers in FGM are not limited to students. It will also empower teachers to feel equipped to take on their role.

In fully understanding their legal responsibilities, including mandatory reporting, teachers will able to confidently safeguard their students and signpost the correct support. Training is absolutely essential. Without it, the huge changes to the curriculum will not be able to support and educate young people.

What can you do?

Get involved with us as we continue to press for standardised, mandatory training for teachers on FGM! Find us on twitter @YouthForChange. And while you’re here, support all of the other amazing activists in our network, such as IKWRO, who are calling for FGM to be tackled earlier on in education.

We’re not going to stop making noise. We need to ensure that the education young people receive reflects what they want and need to learn. We very much hope that the Government will listen to our calls to introduce mandatory training. Together, we can move even closer to eradicating FGM in the UK once and for all.

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Politics Affects our Health: the Case of Sudan

‘Social determinants of health’ are the circumstances and surroundings that influence an individual’s health outcomes.

Researchers have focused on social determinants of health for decades and there is now a general consensus that higher socioeconomic status predicts better odds of future health and well-being. While this notion is scientifically accepted, it prompts the question: what creates these social determinants of health? This has brought much needed attention to the ways in which politics affect health – both directly and indirectly.

‘Political determinants of health’ are the factors that shape the social determinants of health. This is a relatively new concept and is of particular significance for women. An example of the link between politics and health can be found in Sudan.

In Sudan, the political climate is shaped by religion and the constitution is based on teachings of Sharia Law. Currently, many communities face extreme financial strain as a result of failed past politics and/or war and insecurity. This has increased pre-existing and vast social inequities, including gaps in financial and educational opportunities.

The political situation in Sudan has had inevitable consequences for health.

Social disadvantage falls heavier on women. Until recently, girls have been denied the same education as their male counterparts. Lack of education leads to limited knowledge of health, which affects an individual’s ability to improve their own health outcomes. 

One example is the issue of sexual and reproductive health. Sexuality and sexual behaviour are sensitive topics rarely discussed in conservative, religious cultures like Sudan’s. Sexual and reproductive health and rights do not enjoy a high-priority status among political agendas, either, and there has been very little consideration of introducing sexual education into classrooms. However, many educators and health officials have started to support sex education in schools, resulting in increasing support by legislators.

Another example is the high prevalence of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Sudan, at a prevalence of approximately 89% countrywide. The harmful practice continues to affect many areas of the country, and although it is legally banned, it is well-known to continue with the open support of many religious leaders. This is a clear example of failed implementation of legislation that has allowed FGM to remain prevalent despite wide-spread efforts by campaigns and NGO peer-education programs.

Under Sudanese constitution, child marriage, forced marriage or marital rape are not against the law.

Much of the country’s legislation does not provide any protection for women’s rights. As a result, many Sudanese women fear persecution.

One case that struck the international community was that of Noura Hussein in 2018. The 19-year-old was sentenced to death for fatally stabbing her husband – who she had allegedly been forced to marry – after he attempted to rape her. In the eyes of the law, marital rape does not exist, and so Hussein had no claims to self-defence as she was viewed as a belonging of her husband. The ruling was thankfully overturned after increasing international pressure on the Sudanese government. Hussein received a reduced sentence of 5 years in prison. 

Historically, women in Sudan have been forced to be subordinate to men. Although this is changing and vast improvements have been made, drastic changes to the country’s politics and constitution are needed to ensure full protection of women’s rights – especially their rights to health and wellbeing. 

 

The Real Price of FGM in Kenya

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a human rights violation, a form of torture and an extreme form of violence and discrimination against girls and women – there is no subtle way to describe it!

Sadly, according to World Health Organization (WHO), more than 200 million girls and women globally have undergone FGM. Worse still, if current trends continue, 15 million girls (between ages 15-19) are at risk of undergoing FGM by 2030. In my region of Kenya, there are numerous documented cases of girls dying every year due to complications arising from FGM, but substantial data is difficult to come by.

Contrary to popular belief that FGM is a ‘cultural issue’, in reality, the practice has dire socio-economic consequences and impacts on the health, education, livelihoods and general well-being of girls and women. In the course of my activism and journalism in Kenya, I have come face-to-face with the impact of FGM on girls and women among various communities that perpetuate the practice.

FGM is believed by some to ‘benefit’ girls and women by ensuring chastity and cleanliness as well as acting as a rite of passage into womanhood. In reality, it is a perpetuation of misogyny and a violent expression of the patriarchy and sexism that lead to the psychological and physical abuse of women.

Without exception, young girls and women carry the economic burden of FGM since the practice denies those affected an opportunity to access education. Lack of education, of course, then limits chances of being economically productive through formal employment. Moreover, lack of education limits the nature of livelihood activities individuals can partake in.

Another issue underpinning the continuation of FGM is the persistent equation of girls and women with commodities. For instance, among the Rendile, Pokot and Maasai communities in Kenya, it is common practice to trade off girls as dowry as way of replacing livestock lost during drought or through rustling. As a result, a girl’s education and future is sacrificed at the expense of her father’s quest for wealth.

By the same token, it is well known that circumcisers, often older ladies, have continued the practice not because of their ‘strong’ belief in the practice but purely as a means of making a living out of innocent girls.  For instance, last year a renowned but reformed ‘cutter’ confessed in an interview with me that she had made a great deal of money out of her business, which she’d practiced for 30 years. She boasted of having built a permanent house – one of the best in the village – with the money she’d made. Unfortunately, her wealth had been accumulated through cutting over 5000 girls, most of whom eventually would have dropped out of school and been married off at a young age.

The practice of FGM even impacts social institutions in practicing communities. Local level authorities charged with the responsibility of arresting FGM perpetrators are routinely bribed. One such revelation came from a Chief I spoke to, who confessed to having made “a few coins” out of the practice. Indeed, it emerged that it is common practice for cutters, parents and community elders to bribe chiefs and police to shield them, especially during the cutting ceremonies.

It has also been widely documented that many perpetrators walk out of cells scot-free for lack of sufficient evidence to support prosecution. In some instances I’ve heard about, politicians have been known to interfere with criminal cases by bribing officials who in turn release the perpetrators by instigating a low cash bail – after which most cases simply fade away.

Sounds like a scheme, right? But it remains the reality for too many women and girls in Kenya and around the world. Women and girls continue to pay the price of FGM. And the price remains way too high.

Girls’ Globe is publishing opinions and ideas on tackling gender-based violence from our global network of bloggers and organizations during each of the 16 Days of Activism. We’re also crowdfunding to be able to continue to raise the voices of girls and young women in 2018 – voices like Lorna’s. Donate today and help us to continue building a safer, more equal world. 

Gender Based Violence: What you need to know

What is Gender Based Violence?

‘Gender-based violence’ and ‘violence against women’ are terms used interchangeably. However, it is important to recognise that men can experience abuse from women, and abuse within same sex relationships happens at similar rates to heterosexual relationships.

That said, it has been widely acknowledged that the majority of people affected by gender-based violence are women and girls. This is due to unequal distribution of power in society between women and men. Women have fewer options and less resources to avoid abusive situations and seek justice. They also face challenges to their sexual and reproductive health, including forced and unwanted pregnancies, sexual assault, unsafe abortions, traumatic fistula, female genital mutilation (FGM), and higher risks of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV.

Youth for Change works in the UK, Tanzania and Bangladesh. We focus on three areas under gender based violence; child/early forced marriage, FGM and sexual consent.

What about Child/Early Forced Marriage and FGM?

Both child/early forced marriage (CEFM) and FGM are forms of gender based violence. They are driven by gender inequality and social expectations of what it means to be a girl. They are means of controlling girls’ sexuality often linked to cultural, religious or traditional social norms.

Some communities believe forced marriage and FGM is a way of providing a safer future for their daughters. In reality they are both violations of girls’ rights which have devastating consequences. Both forced marriage and FGM make girls more likely to drop out of school, face violence, health problems, and experience complications during pregnancy. Neither are religious practices, they are cultural traditions.

Approximately 700 million women alive today were married as children while 200 million women were cut. Both issues are widespread around the world, including  Europe, Africa, Asia and the US.

And what about Sexual Consent?

Educating young people on sexual consent prevents gender based violence. Consent is about communication. And it should happen every time. Giving consent for one activity, one time, does not mean giving consent for increased or recurring sexual contact. Having sex with someone in the past doesn’t give that person permission to have sex with you again in the future. When consent is not given, this leads to sexual assault or rape.

What links these forms of GBV together?

At the heart of consent is the idea that every person has a right to their own body. This basic principle applies to all forms of gender based violence. Including FGM and forced marriage.

What are we doing about it?

As Youth for Change we have been campaigning across the UK, Tanzania and Bangladesh, aiming to end FGM and forced marriage, and to make sure young people know their sexual rights. We look at these issues on a country-by-country basis. As youth activists we focus on the issues in the countries where we live. For example, the Bangladesh youth team focus on child marriage, as it is the most prevalent issue there.

Young people have a crucial role to play in ending gender based violence. We have been raising awareness about the impacts within communities and empowering young people to speak out against it. Working with our governments in each country, we are pushing for stronger policies and systems to prevent gender based violence happening in the first place.

In the UK, where I am an activist, we have a campaign called #TrainToProtect, which calls for compulsory FGM and forced marriage training for teachers across the UK. The new Sexual Relationships Education (SRE) Bill in the UK will see SRE taught to students in all schools. But in order to deliver quality SRE, including on FGM and forced marriage, and to respond to any disclosures from students – teachers must have the necessary training.

Want to help?

For those based in the United Kingdom: teachers and students can take part in our 2 min survey to have your say on SRE education!

For more information or support on any of these issues: 

If you’ve experienced sexual assault, you’re not alone. To speak with someone who is trained to help, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or chat online at online.rainn.org

For detailed guidance on consent visit Consent is Everything

Visit the NHS for detailed information on FGM

Childline information on Forced Marriage

GOV UK guidance on Forced Marriage

Gemma Munday is a member of the Youth for Change youth team, advocating against gender based violence. She also works in communications for youth-led development agency Restless Development. Here she supports young people around to world to capture and share their stories of change. Previously she has worked in UNICEF UK’s media team and was selected as a digital ambassador for UN Women. With a history of working with young people, Gemma has taught in an additional needs school and worked as a mentor for underprivileged youth.